Innokentii Veniaminov

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INNOKENTII VENIAMINOV (John Popov Veniaminov, 17971879), known in English as Innocent, was a Russian Orthodox missionary to Alaska, bishop of Siberia and Alaska, and metropolitan of Moscow. Born into a poor clerical family in the village of Anga, near Irkutsk (south-central Siberia), John Popov received his early education from his father, the church sacristan. From 1806 to 1818 he attended the seminary in Irkutsk, where he was an outstanding student. During this period, his surname was changed to Veniaminov.

After his marriage, Veniaminov served as a priest in Irkutsk. When the Russian-American Company called for volunteers to serve as missionary priests, he at first refused, but changed his mind after hearing of the zeal of the Aleuts for the Christian message. In 1823 he set out with his wife, son, brother, and mother for the fourteen-month journey to Unalaska in the Aleutian chain. His first task there was to build his own house and a church.

Veniaminov studied the Aleutian language, creating an alphabet and teaching the Aleuts to read and write. One of the books he wrote in Aleut, A Guide to the Way to the Heavenly Kingdom, was translated into Russian and went through forty-six editions. Veniaminov was also an outstanding scientist and anthropologist. A series of his articles, published in Russia, aroused so much interest that they also were published in French and German journals. His three-volume Notes on the Islands of the Unalaska District remains a basic reference work. Veniaminov's main interest, however, was in the conversion of the Aleuts. His careful work in evangelism and teaching left an established church.

After ten years in the Aleutians, Veniaminov was transferred to Sitka in southeast Alaska and commenced work among the Tlingit, a tribe previously hostile to both Russian culture and religion. Upon completing fourteen years of missionary service, he returned to Russia to oversee the printing of his Aleutian translations. When his wife died, he entered the monastic ranks, taking the name Innokentii. He was then made bishop of the newly created Diocese of North America and Kamchatka (1840).

Innokentii returned to Sitka in 1841, but was not content to direct affairs from his episcopal residence. He traveled widely over his scattered diocese, visiting areas that had rarely seen a priest. He changed his episcopal residence three times to be on the front line of the missionary expansion of his diocese. As the result of his efforts, the synod enlarged his diocese and elevated him to archbishop in 1850.

In 1868, at the age when he normally would have retired to a monastery, Innokentii was elected primate of the Russian church. This honor was truly a crown to his life's work, as it enabled him to submit new plans and to press for reforms in the Orthodox church. The most far-reaching project was the establishment of the Orthodox Missionary Society (1870), which put Russian missionary activity on a sound financial footing for the first time. The society was an attempt to mobilize the whole church by the formation of local diocesan committees, and its work continued into the twentieth century.

Innokentii's influence extended beyond his own dioceses. He encouraged Nikolai Kasatkin, Orthodox chaplain to the Russian consulate in Hakodate, Japan, to learn Japanese. Kasatkin credited Innokentii's advice and example as part of the impetus that resulted in the establishment of the Japanese Orthodox church. Innokentii worked toward the establishment of an independent Diocese of North America with the episcopal see to be located in either San Francisco or New York. He was canonized on October 6, 1977, by the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia and honored with the title Evangelizer of the Aleuts and Apostle to America.


Innokentii's writings and a biography are available in seven volumes in Innokentii Mitropolit Moskovskii i Kolomenskii, Tvoreniia (Writings) and Pisʾma (Letters), edited by I. P. Barsukov (Moscow, 18831888; Saint Petersburg, 18971901). The only full-length biography in English is Paul D. Garrett's Saint Innocent, Apostle to America (Crestwood, N.Y., 1979). Valuable information is found in Josef Glazik's Die russisch-orthodoxe Heidenmission seit Peter dem Grossen (Münster, 1954), Hector Chevigny's Russian America: The Great Alaskan Venture, 17411867 (New York, 1965), and Gregory Afonsky's A History of the Orthodox Church in Alaska, 17941917 (Kodiak, Alaska, 1977). Two articles in Saint Vladimir's Theological Quarterly refer to materials in the U.S. Library of Congress: Vsevolod Rocheau's "Innocent Veniaminov and the Russian Mission to Alaska, 18201840," 15 (1971): 105120; and Dmitry Grigorieff's "Metropolitan Innocent: The Prophetic Missionary," 21 (1977): 1836; they are excellently researched introductions.

James J. Stamoolis (1987)